You know how there are certain stories that, in your family or your circle of friends, become infamous, favorite stories that people tell? Well, for a generation of people working in public radio, especially documentary producers, the story of how Scott Carrier got on the radio is one of those stories. Here's what happened.
Scott was living in Salt Lake City and things weren't going so great. His marriage was coming apart. He had a job painting a semi-conductor factory that was easy to walk away from. But from time to time, when he was listening to an especially great story on the radio, on public radio, he would think to himself, I could do that. And so one day he got himself a tape recorder and walked to the highway and stuck out his thumb and headed east to the headquarters of NPR News in Washington DC. And anybody who picked him up and gave him a ride, he interviewed. So after a couple weeks on the road, he arrives at NPR's old offices on M Street in Washington with all these interviews in his backpack.
It was a Sunday. The place was mostly deserted. Only the staff of weekend All Things Considered and some engineering staff were there in the building. But there was a telephone in the lobby of that building and Scott called in, and the then-host of weekend All Things Considered, Alex Chadwick, happened to be the one who picked up the phone. And Scott explained that he had just arrived, having hitchhiked across the country, and now he had all these tapes, and he would like it if somebody would show him how to turn the tapes into a radio story. Which, incredibly, somebody did.
Most people on the radio sound like each other, the same way that most people on TV sound like other people on TV, and most writing in the newspaper is like all the other writing in the newspaper. Scott sounds only like himself. There's a feeling in his stories that's unlike anything anybody else does.
And so, today, we're going to do something different. We're going to be bringing you an entire hour of stories from one contributor, from Scott Carrier. We wanted to try this, and try it with Scott, because there's just something in this set of stories where, when you put them all together, somehow they seem to be telling one long story in a really nice way.
From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Today's show, stories by one of the most interesting people working in radio, Scott Carrier. Our show today in four acts, including, in Act Three, Scott Carrier heads out on a mission to discover whether amnesia-- the kind that's in the movies where someone gets bonked on the head and you can't remember anything-- he tries to find out whether that actually happens in real life.
Our show today in four acts. Stay with us.
Act One: The Test
Act One, The Test. A couple years back, Scott Carrier was hired to interview men and women in Utah who were diagnosed with schizophrenia. He got the job because the director of the research project heard some of his radio stories and thought that he was a good interviewer, somebody who knew how to listen. So they taught Scott to administer this test that measured mental health. It was 100 questions, each of which was scored on a scale of one to seven. It took an hour to give the test. Scott was paid $30 for each test he gave. The people he gave the test to got $5.
I was hired to interview men and women in the state of Utah who receive Medicaid support for treatment of mental illnesses generally diagnosed as schizophrenia. I had little understanding of schizophrenia before I began, and I have little more understanding now. I took the job because I had no other. I took the job because I'd just quit my steady job, my professional job, after realizing that what I wanted more than anything was to put my boss on the floor and stand on his throat and watch him gag. Then my wife moved out, took the kids and everything. She said, I've thought about it and I really think it's the best thing for me at this time in my life.
And so I took the job interviewing schizophrenics because it was offered to me and because it was all there seemed to be. And it seemed somehow predestined, a karmic response that could not be avoided. It would only be temporary, something to get through the summer, and I was told that they needed someone willing to drive around the state, through the small towns, searching out individuals who were often transient and prone to hiding. I like to drive, I like to travel, and I like the idea of pursuit, so I took the job and did the job, and my life will never be the same.
The patient is 21 years old and has lived with his parents since his discharge from the army. He has no friends, no recreational activities, and no social life. He spends his time writing and reading, but these activities do not give him any pleasure. He has lost weight, has general anxiety and loss of libido, and occasional feelings of unreality. He is worried about his unpredictable behavior-- for example, getting down on all fours and chewing the grass because he was thinking what it would be like to be a cow.
The patient is 25 years old and believes that she is the devil, and therefore responsible for all the evil in the world. She's not been out of her house for seven days, and only comes down from her room for meals. A few days ago, her mother walked into her room and found her crying. She asked her mother what was the most painful punishment that one human being could inflict upon another.
The mother tried to get the reason for this question, and her daughter mumbled something about the devil having to be punished for the benefit of humanity, something about having to die for his sins. When the mother asked her if she still thought she was the devil, she answered, "Let's not get into that again. It only upsets you and you don't believe me anyway, even when the evidence is all around you, plain for you to see."
The people I interview are all so sad, so lonely with such thin souls, like ghosts and demons have invaded their hearts and are sucking their souls dry. A person's soul should be like an ocean, but a schizophrenic's soul is like a pool of rain in a parking lot. They suffer and they are completely alone in their suffering, and there's nothing I can do, nothing anyone can do to bring them back. I come home at night and cry. I sob like a three-year-old.
Today, halfway through an interview with a man in Tooele, he says, "I have a crystal in my pouch. Do you want to see it?" I say OK and he takes it out, a normal crystal the size of a large paper clip. And he says, "I can look through this and it will tell me whether you're a good person or a bad person. What do you want me to do? Do you want me to look through it or not?"
My first thought is to say, "Do you want to go on with the interview? Maybe when we're done, you can look through the crystal." But then I realize that he's really asking me to take his test, just like I'm asking him to take mine. I come into his house. I ask him very personal questions, and I expect him to answer honestly. And why should he? So I say, "OK, go ahead."
And he puts the crystal up to his eye, turns it clockwise and counterclockwise, back and forth, squinting, looking me up and down, and he says, "I can't tell for sure. I'm going to have to read your mind. Here, take my hand." He holds out his right hand with the crystal resting in the palm. I take his hand and he puts his left hand over mine and squeezes it tight and shakes it, and goes into a small spasm. Then he lets go and sort of sits back like he's exhausted.
He asks me if I felt anything, and I say, "Well, maybe a little." And he says, "I sent you a message. I put it in your mind. I told you what is wrong with me."
I'm not supposed to figure out what's wrong with these people. I'm just supposed to ask the questions and score the answers from one to seven. This is partly because I'm not a doctor and might get something going that I wouldn't know how to contain, but it's mainly because my supervisors want clean data. They want all the people asking the questions to be doing it in the same way. I'm not supposed to get emotional. I'm not supposed to let the patient get emotional. The therapy part of the county mental health system is in another department. I wouldn't even know what number to call, and I've been told more than once not to worry about it. I should never have let him take the crystal out of his pouch.
I drove around all day trying to find a Navajo man. He lives very close to the Four Corners, the cross where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona meet. It's all dirt roads, a house every five miles or so, no addresses, no phones. I stop at every house and knock on the door, but either nobody's home or nobody will answer. I flag down every car that passes and ask directions, and the people offer complicated directions that I follow as best as possible, sometimes driving for 20 or 30 miles. But it's always the wrong place, or nobody's home, or there just isn't a house there at all.
Driving around, I think about how I have some of the same problems as the people I interview. I'm angry, depressed, prone to paranoid delusions, and I worry a lot. Up to now, I thought these were common problems and that I was more or less able to control them. But now I don't know. I feel like I'm just faking it.
Eventually, late in the afternoon, I find the man, or at least I think he's the man. I'm a third of the way through the test before I realize he's not the right guy.
"When was your last visit to a mental health clinic?"
"I don't go to a clinic."
"When did you last see a doctor?"
"I don't have a doctor."
"Do you blame yourself for anything you've done or not done?"
"Have you felt more self-confident than usual?"
"Have you heard voices or other things that weren't there, or that other people couldn't hear, or seen things that weren't there?"
And he says, "I think you want to talk to my son." And I ask him what his son's name is and he says, "Same as mine."
I come back the next morning and interview the son in the kitchen. They make coffee for me on a propane camp stove, as the house has no electricity. The son is 19 years old, a good-looking kid, tall, healthy. He says he used to run cross-country in high school. He seems to be fine, but as I go through the questions, he starts to fix his eyes on mine, a direct, almost hypnotic stare straight into my head, like he's trying to pull me in and trap me. I try to look back, to look just as deeply into his mind, but it's like looking into a cave.
He says he hears voices, satanic voices, and that he worries a lot about his shoes, that they're not the right kind, not the kind he sees on MTV. I can't tell if he's sick or if he's just trying to torture me, and I drive away thinking I don't know anything about this disease, that I know even less than when I started. I spent two days driving around, and I made $30, and I feel really, really tired.
The house is dark, as all the windows have heavy curtains pulled nearly shut. The curtains over the big picture window in the living room are open just a bit, and the light cuts through like a laser beam and hits the red shag carpet, throwing up small dust particles and cigarette ash. Two feet away from the light, near the television, is a slice of pizza lying upside down in the carpet. I'm interviewing the woman, a mother, and her teenage daughter is on the phone talking to her boyfriend, or rather a series of boyfriends, who call and call, and all of them want her to go out right now. But her mother won't let her.
She's trying to answer my questions, trying to concentrate and be polite, but she's mainly listening to what her daughter is saying on the phone, and will suddenly switch from saying, "No, no, I've been feeling fine, I haven't had a relapse in months," to screaming out, "Is that John? I told you never to talk to him again," or "Who is it? Is it a boy? You can't go out. Tell him he has to come over here."
I can't stop looking at the slice of pizza on the carpet. I keep looking at the slice of pizza, because it's the only clue that the woman is sick. I mean she has a teenage daughter and a dirty house, and maybe she shouldn't try to wear makeup to bed, but these are not necessarily symptoms of schizophrenia. She seems to be fine, just worn out, until I get to the question, "Have you been worrying a lot?"
And she says, yes, she has. She's been worrying a lot that the elders of the church, the Mormon church, will take her daughter away from her. And I ask her why, and she says because she stopped taking her medication. And I ask her, "Why did you stop taking your medication?" And she says that the only reason she takes it is because she told her bishop that she was visited by the archangel Gabriel and that she'd had sex with him. And then she was also visited by the archangel Michael, and that she'd had sex with both of them at once, and that they'd ravished her almost every night.
So her bishop made her go to a doctor, and the doctor gave her some pills, and she took the pills, and the angels stopped coming. The bishop and the elders had told her that if she had sex with any more angels, they'd take her daughter away. So I asked her again why she stopped taking her medication and she says, "I'm lonely. I miss them. I want them to come back."
Today in a restaurant, eating lunch between interviews, I decided to take the test. I answered the questions and scored myself appropriately, and at some point I realized I wasn't doing so well. I decided not to even add up the points, because then I'd be left with a score and I'd never forget it. If I were to write a report on myself, it would sound something like this.
The patient is 36 years old and lives alone since his wife left him three weeks ago. She took the kids and all the silverware except for a large knife and a bowl and a coffee cup. The patient admits that her leaving may have had something to do with the fact that, without warning, he completely gutted the house, tore out all the walls and ceilings, all the lath and plaster, right down to the studs. He says he did this in order to live like a primitive. When asked if he was successful, he says it was the first step in the right direction.
The patient is a 36-year-old male who lives alone since his wife and children left him two months ago. He says there's a darkness that separates him from other people, a heavy darkness like looking at a person from the bottom of a well. He believes that if he could say the right words, then the darkness would go away. He says he sometimes knows the right words but cannot say them. Other times, he can't even think of the words to say.
The patient is 36 years old and lives alone since his wife and children left him three months ago. Last week he went fishing in the San Juans, and now believes that there's no better fisherman than himself. He says, "I can't tell you about it, because talking about fishing is silly, like farting and tap dancing at the same time. All I can say is I walk around in the water, and I know the instant the fish will jump for the fly. I cut open their stomachs and squeeze out the bugs in my hand, study what they eat, how it all gets digested, even the exoskeleton and wings." He says he was sick before, but now he's OK, and that it was the fly rod, just holding the rod in his hand, that cured him. His house is clean. The electricity is on. The walls have been sheetrocked and painted white. He says, "I'll have to ask her, beg her, and maybe she'll come back."
[MUSIC -- "I TRAVEL ALONE" BY NOEL COWARD]
Act Two: The Friendly Man
Act Two, The Friendly Man. There are three kids. There's a house. There's a marriage. What Scott wanted was a steady job with bosses he did not hate and who did not hate him. He found that job, for a short time, in commercial radio.
There are a lot of bad ways to wake up, but surely one of the worst is by looking into the flood light from a police car. I was in a field, some farmer's field next to a power plant just outside Lawrence, Kansas. I was sleeping there next to my car before driving into Kansas City in the morning. The policeman somehow saw my car from the road, and they pulled up right in front of it, and I didn't even wake up.
I was lying on the ground on the passenger side of the car, and when I did wake up, one of the policemen was in the front seat, I guess looking for drugs, and the other was 40 feet away in the hay field. And I don't know why he was out there, unless he had his gun pulled, covering this partner. He said I scared him when I woke up so suddenly. I sat straight up. Boom, awake. And I bet he nearly shot me dead.
They wanted to know what I was doing sleeping in the field, and I told them that I didn't like motels, which was only partly true. So I decided to tell them that I was born here in Lawrence, but that I don't live here anymore, which was completely true but somehow didn't achieve the level of meaning I hoped it would. They asked me what I was going to do in Kansas City, and I said I was going to interview the mayor at 11:00 in the morning. I told them I was a producer for a radio program. I told them the name of the program and the name of the host, and they'd heard of him. You'd know who he is as well, if I were to say his name, but I've decided not to say his name and call him the Friendly Man instead, because this is his persona.
I told the policemen that every weekday morning, the Friendly Man has a five-minute feed on one of the networks, and 12 million people listen. His stories are, as a rule, upbeat and positive. Their general theme is people taking responsibility for their lives, their community, their country. The Friendly Man always has good news, and the good news is always that America just keeps getting better and better. Both policemen said they had heard of the program and that they liked the Friendly Man, and so they decided they liked me as well, and that it was OK to sleep in the field, sorry to have bothered you.
I was hired by one of the Friendly Man's executive producers. Her job was to wrangle and corral radio producers like myself from around the country into conducting interviews and writing scripts for stories that had been found by her flock of computer researchers, also from around the country. Some people are surprised to hear that the Friendly Man doesn't actually produce the stories he tells, but in reality he just doesn't have the time, what with the television show now and the specials and so on. It's not that he doesn't want to write his stories, not that he can't. It's just that he's really busy now, being the Friendly Man, and you shouldn't expect him to come up with all of his own material.
The way it works is that the Friendly Man is in New York with maybe a couple of editors and an engineer. And his executive producer is in San Francisco with fax machines and email. And the researchers are all over the place, looking for story ideas through computer searches. When the researcher finds what looks like an appropriate story, he calls the people in the story on the phone and talks to them for a while. Then he writes out a story synopsis, which is sent to the Friendly Man for approval. Once approved, the story goes to a producer and the producer is in charge of conducting, basically, the same interviews all over again, on tape this time, and then editing the tape and writing the script, which is reviewed by the executive producer in San Francisco and sent to the Friendly Man in New York City so he can read it on the air.
The first story I produced for the Friendly Man was in Tucson, Arizona. It was about some people in Tucson who were helping to make America a better place. It doesn't really matter what the story was about. What matters is that I had to do all the interviews over the phone. There wasn't enough money to send me to Tucson. So I found an audio engineer in Tucson and had him go to the locations and hold a microphone up to the subjects while I talked to them on the phone. Then he sent me the tape, which I edited and then wrote the script without ever meeting the people I was writing about or the person I was writing for.
When I made a suggestion for changing the story, a change that I thought would make it better, the executive producer said that she would try not to get upset with me because this was my first story, and maybe I didn't understand my role. The story had been approved as written in the synopsis. There were to be no changes, no additional narratives or discoveries. I was but the writer-producer, one of many cogs in the wheel. I apologized and did the story as ordered.
After this first story, I asked the executive producer if I could go on the road, drive around and collect interviews, actually meet the people and see what they were doing, and then come back and produce the stories. She gave me four stories at a distance of 3,000 miles. They would pay the mileage but would give me nothing up front. The food and lodging were to be my expenses, and so I was sleeping out. It was the first week of July and so warm at night you could sleep on the grass without a bag or a blanket.
At 11:00 AM, on the morning after the incident with the police, I was standing in the mayor's office on the top floor of the Kansas City, Missouri municipal building. It's a tall building, built on one of the highest hills in the area, so looking out of the window, I could see most of the city, buildings and railroad tracks and the river-- the Missouri River-- making a big ox-bow right through town. We sat at a long wooden table, a conference table, in tall chairs. Mayor Emanuel Cleaver, also a Methodist minister, a black mayor in a black town.
I'd come to ask him about his summertime midnight basketball program. The program, like all midnight basketball programs, was designed to reduce the crime rate by keeping juveniles off the street. And, like with some of the other programs, the crime rate hadn't gotten any better except for the time that the kids were actually playing basketball. Whenever there was a game going on, the crime rate in the neighborhood was lower.
The mayor's opponents were saying that the program was pork, that the $100,000 a year could be better spent somewhere else. I asked the mayor about this, and he was adamant, even passionate, about the value of teaching kids to play basketball or any team sport. He said that team sports teach kids the best values, that they learn to cooperate and play by the rules. They learn to problem-solve through cooperation, and by playing, they learn to love the game, and through the love of the game, they learn to love themselves and each other.
He said that a few of the kids had gone to college on basketball scholarships, and this gave hope to everybody in the community, a community where hope was like a foreign language. And that alone was worth it, even a bargain at $100,000. He said, "You go to the games. It's mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers. You'll see the whole community there."
He was right. Over on the east side, the poor side of town, there were games going on in a community center and the place was packed. And the games were good, little eight- and nine-year-olds passing the ball and making plays and running hard the whole game. They loved the game. I interviewed coaches, kids, and parents, and everything was going fine. Things really were getting better and better in America.
But then, just before I left, I was talking to a father about a son, and somebody-- I think probably a little kid-- took my three rechargeable batteries and a digital audiotape with the mayor's interview on it out of my bag and out of the building. And they were gone. The batteries were worth $250 and could be replaced, but the interview with the mayor was lost for good. Some little kid looked in my bag and these things were like eggs in a basket. Anyone older would've just taken the bag.
I walked around the neighborhood for a while, trying to figure out what to do. The next day was a Saturday and I doubted the mayor would be in his office, which would mean that I'd have to wait until Monday. But I had appointments for interviews Monday morning for another story in St. Louis, 300 miles to the east. And then there was the fact that I'd been robbed while doing a story about a program that reduces juvenile crime.
The story, as it was written by the researcher in the synopsis, was all about how black people were improving their lives and making things better by playing basketball. But the reality of the situation, at least the way I saw it, was that these people were poor, that they'd been poor for a long time, and that they were probably going to stay poor for a long time. So I called the executive producer and left her a message, saying that maybe she should consider scrapping the basketball story, and that I was going on to St. Louis and would call her from there.
The story in St. Louis was also about poor black people, only in St. Louis it was about old poor black people, old poor black people who lived in a nursing home and had started their own private economy, wherein they'd get paid for helping each other out by washing clothes or cooking meals or even reading books and stories out loud at bedtime. But they didn't get paid in real money. They got paid in what they called time dollars, which could only be exchanged between themselves or cashed in at a special community store for food, clothing, and other necessary items.
The old people liked the time dollar program. They were much happier than before they had the time dollar program. At least this is what the researcher had written in the synopsis, and this is how things seemed for most of the morning I was there doing interviews.
My first interview was with the woman who'd set everything up. She was a well-educated upper-middle-class white lady who worked for a large charitable organization as a local manager of its programs. This woman was very nervous, and I couldn't tell if it was because she was just nervous being interviewed, or if she was nervous being surrounded by poor black people, or if she was just nervous by nature.
I talked to her for a while, and then she introduced me to some women who actually participated in the time dollar program. And they told me that they do things like call up old people around town and ask them if they feel OK, if they're sick or something. Or they clean and dry a neighbor's clothes before he goes into the hospital, for cook for someone who has bad asthma. And then they could use the time dollars to buy stuff they needed.
They were friendly ladies, and it was just like it said in the synopsis-- neighbors helping neighbors and getting paid to do it. So I asked them if we could go over and see the store, the place where they actually buy everything. And they sort of hemmed and hawed about it, said there was a key and they'd have to get it. And then we were talking about grandchildren, arthritis, the weather in Mississippi.
I was wondering if maybe they didn't really want to go to the store, so I asked again, and they said it was a couple of blocks away and it was raining so hard. I was a little worried at this point, because the store was in the synopsis and so there had to be some tape of the store in the story. And so I explained my predicament to the women and begged them, as best I could, if we could go there.
We borrowed some umbrellas and walked over to the building that housed the store. It was a one-story warehouse, brick and concrete, a few windows. Inside, we went down a hallway that separated two large rooms, each packed with desks and office people, stacks of paper, stacks of folders, desk fans, lots of desk lights, people typing on real typewriters, old adding machines. It was very suspicious. One side looked like the Bulgarian foreign trade department, the other side like the Lithuanian shipping commission. Down at the far, dark end of the hall was a large metal cabinet with two full length doors, closed by a padlock. One of the ladies opened the lock, and inside were four shelves. The top held bottles of fabric softener. The next was full of baby wipes. Another had some paper plates and plastic silverware, and the bottom was full of bathroom deodorizer.
That was it. That was the store. I'd imagined something between a 7-Eleven and a thrift store, and I didn't understand. I didn't understand how any of this was working. I stood there and looked at the cabinet and the story disintegrated into baby wipes and picnic forks.
I thanked the ladies and left the building and called the executive producer. I didn't want to tell her about the baby wipes and the fabric softener. There was no use in telling her that something was wrong, that maybe the whole story was a sham. But I did want to ask her if it would be OK if I left the store out of the story, that maybe the story should be that these people just like helping each other, and that the time money thing wasn't so important. But she never let me get to it.
She was upset, very upset, about the message I'd left on her machine Friday night. It had ruined her whole weekend. She was distraught and nearly hysterical. Everyone was distraught and nearly hysterical, and it was my fault. My fault to have taken my eyes off the equipment, my fault to have been robbed, my fault to have left town without completing the story assignment. She said that I'd led her to believe that I was a professional, but no professional would ever behave in such a manner.
She said this twice, the subtext being that the Friendly Man can only use professional producers, and that therefore I was fired unless maybe I went back to Kansas City to re-interview the mayor. My job was to do what I was told, just as their job was to do what they were told, just as the Friendly Man's job was to do what he was told. Because the audience, the 12 million listeners, had something they wanted to be told-- that America is a good place with decent people, never mind the screaming coming from the basement.
So I got in my car and drove 300 west to Kansas City. I could have told them to go [BLEEP] themselves, but I didn't. I went back, because I didn't want to be fired by the Friendly Man. I'd been fired by other, less well-known friendly men, and it's always like being branded, scorned as the one who ran. I was tired of that, tired of being broke and not having any work. My wife, my family-- they were tired of it too. I decided that I wanted to be a professional. I wanted to be a team player. I wanted to take responsibility for my life, my community and my country. I wanted to get ahead and go someplace with my career and be happy.
I drove back to Kansas City and got in late at night. I drove through the big buildings downtown, the streets lit yellow and vacant. I drove through the poor neighborhoods, the streets lit yellow and vacant. I drove along the parkways, past fountains and parks, and I drove past my grandmother's house and down to the Country Club Plaza, where I slept without a bag or a blanket on the lawn, on the long esplanade in front of the Nelson Art Museum. If I was to be bothered by the police, I would tell them that I am a radio producer working for the Friendly Man, and that I have a meeting with the mayor in the morning.
Coming up, you can call me Ray or you can call me Jay, but I don't want to know my own name, thank you very much. Amnesiac wannabe forgets to forget. Also, sixth-grader remembers to remember. More stories from Scott Carrier in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.
Act Three: Who Am I? What Am I Doing Here?
Well, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our show, of course, we choose some theme, and bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, The Friendly Man, stories by Scott Carrier. We're devoting the full hour to Scott's stories because they're just great radio stories, and they sound great when you listen to them one after another. Each of these stories originally appeared on different episodes of our radio show, most of them back in the 1990s, actually. And there's a point where I made a little collection of these on a CD, and I would duplicate copies and give them to friends now and then. And at some point, I realized, oh, this CD would be a really great hour on the radio. And so that's basically what we have today.
Scott is just one of the great original voices working in radio. We've arrived at Act Three of our show. Act Three, Who Am I? What Am I Doing Here? Sometimes all we want to do is forget. All we want is amnesia. But of course, real amnesia happens a lot more on TV and in the movies than it does in real life. In the movies, people are constantly getting bonked on the head and forgetting who they are. And then they embark on a series of madcap adventures that teach them who they really are. But does that happen, the amnesia part at least? Is there really such a thing as amnesia, and does it work like that? Have you ever met a single person who's had amnesia?
Well, a few years back, we at This American Life wanted to find out the answer to that. And Scott agreed to help.
The idea was to find someone who had amnesia and ask them what it was like in real life. I was warned that it might be difficult to locate such a person, that the affliction may in reality be quite rare, but that there was at least one known amnesiac living in Tennessee, and another in Pennsylvania. The particular cities and addresses could be found if necessary. "Nonsense," I said. "I'm surrounded by amnesiacs. This city breeds forgetfulness. There must be five or six amnesiacs in the neighborhood around my office alone." I accepted the offer, thinking it would be an easy assignment.
I began by asking everybody I saw if they had or had ever had amnesia. I did this for three days, and I tried not to be selective, but to ask everybody with whom I came into contact, whether my wife or the checker at the grocery store, "Do you have or have you ever had amnesia?" And furthermore, I'd ask this each and every time I saw the person, sometimes two or three times a day. No one admitted to currently having amnesia, but at least one in four remembered being knocked hard on the head and losing memory from a concussion. This kind of amnesia lasts only a few minutes or a few hours, and concussion stories, I found out, are usually not worth listening to or worth telling.
They usually go something like this. "I was in a football game and two guys fell on my head. I kept playing. I played the whole game and everything, but then after the game I had to get a ride home, because I didn't remember where I lived." I heard this story three times from the same person, and each time he told it to me in the same way with some difficulty, as if something had been taken from him and he didn't know what it was.
Two people admitted to suffering from drug-induced amnesia. One had a drinking problem. The other was myself as, due to the fact that when I was 19, I ate a big psilocybin mushroom right off the ground in the mountains of Colombia, South America, and spent four or five hours where I didn't know my name, where I was, or why. I was hallucinating wildly, the sky exploding, the ground bubbling up under my feet. The trees and bushes were throwing off little packets of flame and brightly colored orbs. I wandered around and around in a cow pasture, holding my hands over my eyes, delirious.
And then a man in a jeep picked me up and I thought he might be my father, and I thought I knew what he was saying, but I didn't know what language he was speaking. And we went to his house and watched a soccer game on television, while his wife, who I thought might be my mother, served us coffee from a metal tray. And then I was back out on the road, and I walked up to a park and sat down and drew a picture of myself in a notebook. And below the picture I wrote these words: "I'm still here." If this gave me any insights into what amnesia is like-- real amnesia-- I don't remember what they are.
In three days, the closest I came to finding someone with amnesia was through a young woman who's the daughter of a friend of mine. She's a physical therapist and one of her patients had had her head smashed in a car accident. Her amnesia is kind of the opposite of what we normally think about. She can remember things in the distant past just fine, but she doesn't seem to be able to remember what just happened or what she was just thinking or just where it was she was going. So she can't, for instance, drive a car or even ride a bus. I asked my friend's daughter if I might be able to talk with this woman, and she said, "Well, I guess so, but you might have a better conversation with her dog."
I came back to my office feeling a little down. Finding an amnesiac was proving to be more difficult than expected. I decided to seek professional help. I got up out of my chair and walked across the hallway and knocked on the door of Dr. Jeff Harris, psychologist.
I think there was a guy that went through it when I was in Vietnam, who ended up in serious action. And he ended up going from one APC to the next. Each one got blown up as he was getting in, or-- I don't know exactly how he survived the whole thing, but we're talking about a platoon basically getting wiped out, he being one of the few survivors. And he couldn't remember. He couldn't remember his past. He couldn't remember where he was going. And that's the classical Freudian theory of repression. We don't remember things that make us feel guilty, or feel pain.
All right. Well, let me ask you this. Say I have the ability to make you have amnesia. If I flip this switch, you won't remember your name. You won't remember who you are. What do you think?
What do I think?
Yeah, would you do it or not?
I would want to do it because then I think that I would lose my ego. I would lose this-- I would have a clean slate, sort of thing.
It would-- if all of a sudden you sat here and you couldn't remember why you're holding this microphone or who I am or why you're talking to me, to say it was disorienting would be too mild.
I think I would be smart enough to realize, this is a gift. I mean, there's two choices. Either you realize that it's a gift, or you completely freak out. One or the other.
You're talking as if you wake up in the morning, you don't know where you are, who you are, where in the hell you're going, and you're happy with it? Give me a [BLEEP] break.
That still seems attractive to me. It still seems like it might be a good thing, to be put in a situation where I have to admit that I'm completely lost. It seems like--
Oh, I think you already are, Scott.
After five days, having found no one who had, or had had amnesia, I decided to visit a hypnotherapist, Diane Bradshaw, and ask her if she could give me amnesia. She said she probably could do it, as long as I was willing to be put under hypnosis. She said some people just weren't willing.
And if you're open to the possibility that, say, amnesia would be OK for five minutes, or one minute, it might happen.
Well, I'm open to even a day, if that-- would that be a bad idea?
What do you really want here? Do you want to get that extreme?
Well, let's say a few hours, anyway. Do you think-- what do you think? Because he's going to have to hang out with me.
You know what I think?
I think an hour--
I think if you had a half-hour of amnesia, you would get it pretty quick.
All right. An hour. Half-hour.
I think a half-hour would probably be plenty of time. And then I have to ask you, what do you want to forget? I mean, I can do anything from giving you a suggestion to forget your name, to forget where you live, to-- what do you want to forget?
Is it possible to forget everything? My whole self-identity? Is that too much?
She took notes on what I wanted to forget. Then she hypnotized me, which involved having me count backwards from 100, and telling me to relax, deeper and deeper, and then having me imagine being in a big garden with a stream running through it. And she said, if I drank from the stream, I'd forget my name and where I was, and also the name of my friend who'd come with me. So I went and drank from the stream and she woke me up.
--five, open your eyes, all the way back, emerging from hypnosis. All the way back. Hi, there.
How are you doing?
Feels pretty good, doesn't it?
It was pleasant.
It was fun.
But I think I can remember. I'm sorry.
And what is it you can remember? What town do you live in?
Salt Lake. Sorry.
And what have you been doing today?
Uh. Working on this story.
Uh huh. And what's his name over here.
Trent Harris. I'm sorry, man. I tried. I did. I tried.
The next day, I typed "amnesia" into a search engine on the World Wide Web, and got a phone number for the Beckman Institute, a neuroscience center at the University of Illinois. I called up and talked to Rob Althoff, a graduate student, and he told me that the kind of amnesia I was looking for was, indeed, very rare, and that there's some disagreement over whether it even happens at all.
He said people do suffer long-term memory loss from severe brain injuries, but that usually these people never recover their memories, that the brain doesn't regenerate. And he said that the other kind of amnesia, where there's no physical trauma, is often a matter of the person not wanting to remember, for one psychological reason or another, and that in these cases it's really difficult to know whether the person is, basically, just faking it.
Talking to Althoff made me wonder if amnesia, the kind we see on TV and in the movies, where a character gets hit on the head with a coconut, loses his self-identity, then spends the rest of the story rediscovering it or getting bonked on the head by another coconut-- whether this is really just a story that we want to be true. Everyone loves the idea of a second chance, of starting over without the burden of the past. I think that's why amnesia is in so many movies and TV shows and romance novels. We somehow want to believe in it.
[MUSIC -- "DON'T FORGET ME" BY MARIANNE FAITHFULL]
Act Four: The Day Mom And Dad Fell In Love
Act Four, The Day Mom and Dad Fell in Love.
Do you know how Mom and I met?
I think you were working an antelope story and Mom was doing filming or something. You met each other and then you liked each other. And then you married each other.
I remember sitting on my front steps in the morning, waiting for her to ride up the hill on her bicycle. It was in the spring, late April, and it had been raining, steam coming up off the street and sidewalks. I was waiting on the steps and I realized that I was in love with her, and that everything was going to be different now. She'd ride up the hill and set her bike down on the grass. And we'd go inside, and she'd live with me there for a long time, maybe forever. I knew it. I saw the whole thing coming, just like I see everything now. The only thing missing is the ending.
I remember lots of times you were nice to mom. She told me once that for her birthday or for Christmas or something, you bought her perfume and you wanted to get her the right one. And so you went around and you had a sample of each, and you were smelling it. And you were deciding but you couldn't decide which one to give her. And then when you came home, you hugged her.
My house inside had no furniture, other than two chairs and a table. I made some coffee and moved the table over by the window so she could sit in the sun. She was a modern dancer, small and thin, wearing a white cotton blouse. No bra, no need for a bra, shorts and sandals and sweating a bit from the ride. Her skin was dark tanned already, so early. Lovely legs but with lots of scars on the knees and shins, and feet that were like little creatures unto themselves, beautiful and frightening. They had the structure of the Golden Gate Bridge, a high sinewy arch with built-in springs and pulleys and long toes stretching out for purchase.
Do you feel like anything's a mystery between Hillary and me that you don't understand?
This week, when I ask our 11-year-old daughter Jessie this question. she pauses for at least a half a minute. I've asked maybe a million questions in my reporting career, but this has got to be the longest pause I've ever heard.
I don't really think about it much. And I-- it's-- it's a hard thing to think about.
Because it's-- I usually don't pay much attention to what you and Mom are doing between each other. Well, kind of, I do. And I don't really wonder anything. I don't think that there's something that I don't know that I really want to know, like a mystery or anything.
I'd seen her dance the night before in front of a small audience downtown, and her style was wrapped around the idea-- her idea-- that she really weighed nothing at all, and that her body was only there to tell little jokes-- her little jokes, whatever might come to mind.
I asked her if she liked my house, and she said she liked the view. She asked me what I thought about her concert, and I said I thought it was funny. She said, "Funny? Only funny?" "Funny and beautiful," I said. And she said, "That's better."
Do you think Hillary and I are in love?
Yeah. I mean, you-- I know because you sometimes have fights. I think people who love each other have to have fights sometimes. Otherwise they don't understand each other very well. Not everybody is exactly the same, and so people might disagree about something. But two people who love each other have to understand each other, and to understand each other, they have to know what they're thinking.
Up until this time, I'd been living alone and was not unhappy. I had a house and a dog and a car, no job, no need for a job. I had money from the National Endowment for the Arts to produce a radio story about chasing antelope, which, as far as I could tell, only required a wholehearted effort to live as much like a primitive hunter as possible. It was a problem I was working on by myself, and really I had no idea how to go about it, other than by trying to live simply and by trying to stay outside and cover as much ground as possible. But there she was, finally arrived, come to stay.
When you get married-- have you ever thought about getting married?
Not really. Not much.
Maybe a little bit?
I don't know. I mean, I don't believe we can ever guess the future or-- I can hope, but I don't like saying what I want to be when I grow up. Because you never know.
She asked me why I only had one fork in the kitchen. I said it was all I needed, and then asked her how many she had in her kitchen. "Eight," she said, "and at least 10 spoons. And I have some glasses, different kinds, even wine glasses. I like to have friends over. I like to cook and have friends over to eat. Don't you have any friends?"
"Yeah, I have a friend, but he doesn't have any hands," I said, looking over at my dog.
"You know," she said. "I've been dreaming about you. I think I'm in love with you."
How do you know she supports me?
She doesn't wish-- I mean, she doesn't say it as that she regrets that she married you or that maybe not having a job sometimes. And so she still appreciates what she has.
When you get married, if your marriage turns out like our marriage, between your mom and me, would that be good enough for you or would you want more than that?
I think it would be fine. I mean, you guys seem pretty happy. And I think that if my marriage, if I got married, was like yours, I would be pretty happy too. And I think I would try to make a little more money. But otherwise, getting along like that, I think that would be a good marriage.
Jessie Carrier was 11 when that story was recorded. It was a long time ago, though. She's going to be graduating from college in a couple weeks. Scott Carrier is working on a new book, Prisoner of Zion, and he's looking for a publisher for that. He's been teaching lately in the Communication department at Utah Valley University. The stories that you've heard this hour are collected in a book with some other stories. The book is called Running After Antelope. And you can hear Scott's very first radio story, the one that I talked about at the beginning of the program, with the people who he met while hitchhiking across the country, at transom.org.
All of the Scott Carrier stories in today's program were originally produced by at Alix Spiegel. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.
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I was in a football game and two guys fell on my head.
I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.
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